Prison phone justice campaign: Celebrating a victory


“Dad has to purchase phone time through a prison phone system. Fifteen minutes cost $3.30 plus a $1 calling fee, more than for regular long-distance service. If my dad calls and we miss it, he is still charged a calling fee. We are limited to 300 minutes per month and 15 minutes per phone call. Using all his time costs about $86 a month.”  (From Feeling Disconnected)

On Friday, Anika Bowie, the Hamline University student who wrote this paragraph, might get good news. The FCC is set to rule August 9 on petitions from across the country begging for prison phone justice. While rules vary from prison to prison, the common denominator is high prices charged to prisoners who have no otehr option for staying in touch with their family. The high prices usually include a “commission” paid by phone companies to the prison, making expensive phone calls profitable for prisons as well as phone companies.

Phone calls to family members are a vital lifeline for prisoners. They maintain a connection that can give hope and motivation for change. They say — both ways, to the inmate inside and the family members outside — “You are not forgotten. I still care about you.” 

Visits can be difficult-to-impossible, requiring long trips to distant prisons at inconvenient times. For family members with jobs, or without cars, or without spare money for travel, the distance from home to prison visiting room can be an insurmountable barrier. That makes phone calls even more important. 

The FCC ruling will be one victory on a long road to prison phone justice, a campaign led by the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice coalition. Next up: intrastate phone calls, which also carry high costs and commissions/kickbacks to prisons.

Here’s what FCC chair Mignon Clyburn had to say about the issue on July 30:

“These are prisoners who have broken the law, and they deserve to be punished, so why should we 
care that they are being charged extra for phone calls, some ask?

“Well, I have an answer to that question that requires you to keep two numbers in mind: 2.7 million and 700,000.

“In the United States, 2.7 million children have at least one parent in prison, and many of them want and need to maintain a connection to that parent. In addition to coping with the anxiety or insecurity of having an incarcerated parent, these young people are suffering untold economic hardships, which are being exacerbated by an unaffordable inmate calling rate structure. …

“Regardless of why that inmate is in jail, the exorbitant inmate calling regime deeply and chronically affects the most vulnerable among us. If you were to ask their teachers, it is affecting their  academic performance. If you ask the school counselors, it affects their behavior and attitudes. And if you were to speak with the guardians, families and friends, it impacts their ability to adequately and affordably care for these children. …

“I also mentioned the number 700,000.
“Each year, 700,000 inmates are released from correctional facilities, back into society. Whether or not these prisoners successfully re-assimilate has huge societal implications.  

“Multiple studies indicate that having meaningful contact beyond the prison walls can make a real  difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. It also helps strengthen parental ties–further assisting both the children and their other parent.”

The battle for prison phone justice isn’t over — but Friday’s FCC action will mean a BIG step forward.

Related stories:

 Feeling disconnected: Phone calls take on a new meaning for the Bowie family

Minnesota prison phones: High rates, dropped calls, privatization and profits

Opinion: Reduce prison phone costs for stronger families and safer communities